Laugh Clubs Say a Yuk a Day Keeps Doctor Away
In her television documentary "The Laughing Club of India", director Mira Nair looks at a daily ritual that thousands of people are turning to: gathering in groups for some serious chuckling. Mumbai doctor Madan Kataria started the Laughter Club International almost 10 years ago to find out if, in fact, laughter is the best medicine. According to the organization, there's truth to that cliché, and Laughter Clubs are now popping up in cities all over the world--including Vancouver.
Laughing is vital for health, happiness, and world peace, Kataria's Web site states, and the club is nonpolitical, nonreligious, nonracial, and "no cult". If the notion of a laughter club brings to mind Yuk-Yuk's or Seinfeld, however, think again. Kataria's practice involves giggling for no reason, an act he calls "laughter yoga". When people in the club show up for a good laugh, they don't stand around listening to jokes. Instead, each session begins with deep-breathing exercises. Once warmed up, participants being chanting ha ha has.
"This Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha exercise is akin to a yogic exercise called Kaphalbhati, where there is a rhythmic movement of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles," the Laughter Club's Web site states (www.laughteryoga.org/). "It helps to facilitate the lungs in order to initiate laughter....It is not at all difficult to laugh without jokes if laughter is practiced in a group."
That's because laughter is contagious. Vancouverite Hugh McClelland can attest to its infectious quality. He's a "certified laughter leader" who was trained by Kataria and who, when he's not working in communications for the film and television industry, conducts laughter sessions and talks.
In a phone interview, McClelland explains that he became interested in laughter as a means to well-being two years ago, when he was at home with pneumonia. He figured that laughing would help get his lungs back in shape; Kataria was scheduled to give a workshop in Vernon around the same time. Since then, McClelland has been actively building the local scene.
"I got into it because of personal health," McClelland says. "There really are demonstrated positive effects on the immune system. When you're laughing on a regular basis, you're genuinely exercising your lungs and heart and stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system. It literally relaxes you. You feel really relaxed and energized at the same time."
The physical and mental-health benefits of laughter are extensive. According to Kataria, laughter conquers tension and anxiety, since it reduces levels of stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol. It is also said to stimulate circulation, help control blood pressure, and improve lung capacity.
"Doctors recommend chest physiotherapy to bring out mucous (phlegm) from the respiratory passages," Kataria's site says. "Blowing forcefully into an instrument...is one of the common exercises given to asthmatics. Laughter does the same job." (He cautions, however, that laughter could aggravate cases of severe bronchospasm.) Kataria also claims that laughing before a competitive sports activity can increase an athlete's stamina.
Dr. Lee Berk, an assistant professor of health promotion and education at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, a Seventh-day Adventist institution in California, published a study in the March 2001 issue of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine that showed how laughter can boost the immune system. Called Modulation of Neuroimmune Parameters During the Eustress of Humor-Associated Mirthful Laughter, the study found that laughing increases the number of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell, and levels of immunoglobulin A, an antibody that protects against certain viruses and bacteria.
And according to a March 2001 article in Family Practice News, laughter appears to be cardioprotective. Compared with people in a control group, those with heart disease reported themselves to be less likely to use humour as a coping mechanism in stressful situations.
Then there are the more subjective effects of consistent cackling. McClelland maintains that daily laughter can improve your attitude.
"Psychologically, you can't help but be in a better frame of mind," he says. "It doesn't change the outside world but it seems it shifts the brain chemistry toward feeling good, to having a positive outlook."
McClelland helps spread the cheer with the local Laughter Clubs, which meet, among other times, every Wednesday night. Admission to the 7:30 p.m. drop-in sessions (at 96 East Broadway) is by donation, with a $5 maximum. (More details are at McClelland's Web site, www.laughalive.com/. He is also giving a presentation on laughter on January 26 at the Lonsdale Quay Hotel as part of the Canadian Mental Health Association's free public series.) He says the Wednesday events draw between 15 and 35 people. Some are just curious; others simply love to laugh; still others say laughing provides relief from chronic pain, fatigue, or treatments like chemotherapy. And he reassures those who might be painfully shy.
"In a laughter club it's easy to get over the self-conscious thing," McClelland says. "You are not expected to be funny. There's nothing that somebody is going to find off-colour or offensive."
Bad jokes can actually worsen people's moods, which makes the lack of attempt at actual humour in the Laughter Clubs all the more appealing. McClelland claims that after the warm-up exercises, most participants fall into "genuine" laughter within 10 minutes.
"Kids in North America laugh hundreds of times a day, but adults are lucky if they laugh 20 times a day," he says. "People [in the club] do report taking life in a slightly lighter fashion."
And chances are that Laughter Club participants mean it when they say Happy New Year.